Green politics in the era of the post-ecologist paradox

This is the era of ‘post-ecologism.’ On the one hand, we have:

“a general acceptance that the achievement of sustainability requires radical change in the most basic principles of late-modern societies.”

And yet, on the other hand, there is

“a general consensus about the non-negotiability of democratic consumer capitalism – irrespective of mounting evidence of its unsustainability” [1].

This crazy paradox is, undoubtedly, an accurate summation of the societal self-deception we live with: “a realm where the management of the inability and unwillingness to become sustainable has taken centre ground.”  And so the disturbingly ambiguous politics of unsustainability holds sway [1].

Well over a year ago now, Barry wrote about how irony is the only sane response to a world of paradox and ambiguity. But it is a response that is easier to manage at a personal level than at the level of organised politics. So how are green parties coping with this situation?

Through the 1990s, what Ingolfur Bluhdorn calls the original ‘historical mission’ of the greens was achieved – environmental issues having been accepted as vitally significant by the general population of western nations and most other mainstream political parties [2]. However, the policy response of the state over the past 10 or 15 years has not at all been what the greens had in mind in the 1980s.

The institutional answer to the crisis of unsustainability has taken the form of a completely depoliticised techno-managerialism. Ecological modernisation, sustainable development and market-led approaches have been driven by experts and bureaucrats and promoted by politicians with the delusively optimistic assertion that environmental sustainability and economic growth could go hand in hand. In this way, green political demands for radical social and political change led by grassroots democratic decision making have been very effectively neutralised.

In this rapidly evolving post-ecological political landscape, what is a Green Party to do? The German Greens tried federal coalition government (1998-2005), and the outcome was not pretty. Quoting Christoph Egle, Bluhdorn  describes how the party “experienced an outright ‘praxis shock’ having to realise that ‘neither their official – and extremely outdated – party programme nor their structures of internal opinion formation were suitable for government office’ ” [2]. The party had “hardly any impact on the government’s policy agenda [and] the party’s eco-political agenda had become largely empty.” Some of the party leadership took “excursions … into the realm of market liberalism” and also gave support to workfare policies.

The German Greens have since renounced that path. Since 2005 they have engaged in a comprehensive reinvention. The 2007 party congress at Nuremburg passed a resolution titled Climate protection without ifs and buts – towards the solar society which emphasises that “the strategies for fighting climate change which governments have adopted so far are useless” and that the Greens “are ultimately aiming for a complete transformation of industrial society.” As Bluhdorn notes, this self-styled ” ‘radical realism’ reaches well beyond the environmental policy positions of all other parties.”

At the same time, in the area of social justice issues, the German Greens have committed themselves to an “emancipative and encouraging social state … as the primary societal mechanism for achieving social justice and integration” and to do so through a programme that “connects distributive justice with participatory justice, … intergenerational justice and gender justice.” This emancipative social state will be paid for by “higher tax rates for top earners and tighter taxation of income gained from property and capital investments.” Recognising this project will be far from easily achieved, the German Greens promise to “rise up to the struggles over distribution which it entails” [2].

This ‘radical realism’ is a far cry from the green politics unfolding currently in New Zealand. Here the Green Party seems set on a trajectory into the political centre, with an eye on coalition government. It has overcome its long-held distaste for the National Party and signed a memorandum of understanding in support of a number of policy agendas — and, almost incidentally, repudiated its commitment to grassroots democracy by not consulting members about the agreement beforehand. This readiness to ‘play the game’ with a neoliberal government party in the hope of political office seems to signal an acceptance of the post-ecologist paradox.

But perhaps the German Greens’ bruising experience of coalition has not been in vain. The New Zealand Greens could still learn the lessons of that experience by avoiding the detour into compromise. This detour may deliver a transient taste of office, but it can achieve little else except propping up the politics of unsustainability. A return to the path of an authentic and radical ecopolitics that has been rediscovered and mapped out by the German Greens would be much more likely to open a road to a truly sustainable green society.

I could end there but, to be fair to Bluhdorn, whose work I have drawn on, I have to acknowledge that he disagrees with that final point [2]. One senses his reluctance in saying so, but he sees that the ‘alternative’ milieu of new social movements of the 1970s and 1980s – which hitherto provided the social context and structural base for many green activists – is rapidly disintegrating. Few people actually conceive of or desire ‘another world,’ let alone consider that one is in any way possible: consumer capitalism is indeed non-negotiable for very many people in the wealthy nations. Thus, for Bluhdorn at least, the radical green post-materialist critique of the “industrial mass society and consumer capitalism,” which motivated the first wave of eco-politics and led to the foundation of green parties, has been completely exhausted. He believes that, in the era of post-ecologism, the authentic eco-politics of ‘radical realism’ is no longer viable.

However, to accept this is to allow societal self-deception and the paradoxical politics of unsustainability to continue. I don’t really believe that is an option for greens. If we wish to challenge the present unsustainability of the wealthy western way of life, we must recognise, as the German Greens have already, that only an authentic and radical eco-politics can end the deception and break open the paradox. The fact is that the ‘historical mission’ is only half complete – the critical importance of achieving ecological sustainability has been accepted – but now greens must convince the world of a second truth: consumer capitalism cannot continue. And greens won’t get very far in doing that if they try to make nice with neoliberalism.


[1] Ingolfur Bluhdorn and Ian Welsh (2007) Eco-politics beyond the paradigm of sustainability: A conceptual framework and research agenda. Environmental Politics 16(2), 185-205 (pdf here).

[2] Ingolfur Bluhdorn (2009) Reinventing green politics: On the strategic repositioning of the German Green Party. German Politics 18(1), 36-54 (pdf here).

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